Screenplay Software Options

This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2729, , as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 8-16) and their website.

There's an old saying in the movie industry that "Everyone comes to Hollywood with a screenplay in their back pocket." The same may be said for aspiring screenwriters throughout America, who oftentimes have promising ideas for screenplays, but are not sure how to begin putting their stories down on paper (or the computer screen). Lacking knowledge of some of the terrific computer-based tools available, the aspiring writer may simply resort to using a word processor or text editor, thereby missing out on the benefits of tools specifically designed for screenwriting.

This problem is exacerbated by screenwriting books and seminars, in which the reader/student is offered all sorts of advice on storytelling and the screenwriting craft, but little or nothing about methods of utilizing software for developing story ideas, structure, and characters, as well as properly formatting the finished script to meet industry standards. There are several possible reasons why this valuable information is not covered in the average book or seminar. One possible factor is that some seasoned pros — who oftentimes are the ones writing the books and giving the seminars — still use older technology, with no interest in switching over to screenplay software. For example, Joe Eszterhas — who was reportedly paid $3 million upfront for the script to "Basic Instinct" — still uses handwriting and an Olivetti manual typewriter, and apparently has a stack of brand-new ones in storage, in case the manufacturer stops producing them.

There are numerous facets to writing a winning screenplay — including storyline, character development, plot twists, and the dramatic arch — but in this article I will examine some of the leading computer programs that facilitate writing and formatting a movie script.

From Draft to Finale

Of all the screenwriting applications available, one of the best-known is Final Draft — partly because it has most of the features found in competing programs. It offers selective typing of characters' names, locations, scene headings, and transitions; in other words, as you type the first few characters — enough to uniquely identify what you want — the program can automatically fill in the rest. The program has built into it all of the standard screenplay elements, including action, character, dialogue, scene headings, transitions, and shots. In addition, it has revision tracking, more than 50 movie and television story templates, and even a feature that lets you assign computer-generated voices to your characters, so you can hear your script being read aloud.

One difficulty in writing a screenplay is that you want to keep all of your notes for each section at hand, while you are writing. But those notes cannot be in the script itself. Final Draft solves that problem with its script notes feature, which allows you to put ideas and feedback right where you need them, in the script, and yet none of them are included in the final output that you would send to a Hollywood studio or agent.

Another challenge facing a writer is the need to be able to view all of the scenes in the screenplay from a high level, and thus be able to easily see and possibly modify the overall story structure. Final Draft facilitates this with its Scene View feature, which allows you to move or insert scenes, color code them, and hide or display information such as a scene's title, summary, etc. You can also display the Scene View beside your script contents, thereby using it as a roadmap for moving quickly from one part of your script to another.

Final Draft Scene View
Figure 1. Final Draft Scene View

A second major feature touted by the developers of Final Draft is there Scene Navigator, which makes it possible for you to track up to nine categories of information, including each scene's title, length, location. In addition, you can assign a color to each scene. This sounds remarkably similar to the Screen View functionality, and it is not clear what the real differences are between the two.

Final Draft Scene Navigator
Figure 2. Final Draft Scene Navigator

Before the age of computers, professional screenwriters used typewriters; but this meant that reordering the scenes in a story required extensive cutting of the typewritten pages into strips, and using plenty of tape to set the new sequence. A simple but effective answer to this dilemma, was to write down a summary of each scene on a 3x5 index card, and oftentimes pin these cards to a huge corkboard. That made it possible to quickly insert and reorder scenes, without any cutting and taping. Final Draft has a virtual index card system, so you can do this easily.

Final Draft Index Cards
Figure 3. Final Draft Index Cards

The program is priced at $249, and runs on Windows XP or Vista, and on Mac OS X version 10.4.11 or later. Free technical support for the product is available via email, telephone, and live online chat, during normal business hours. You can download a demo version, to try it out before purchasing.

Final Draft welcome screen
Figure 4. Final Draft welcome screen

At the welcome screen, if you have not purchased a copy of the program and thus do not have a customer number to enter, click the Demo button. A dialog box pops up informing you that the demo version is fully functional, but screenplays are limited to 15 pages in length, and contain watermarks. Then you arrive at the start window, where you can begin using the program.

Final Draft start window
Figure 5. Final Draft start window

Final Draft automatically formats and paginates your script according to industry standards, and is one of the only two screenwriting packages preferred by the WGAW (Writers Guild of America, West) Registry for online submission.

Making Magic

The other program preferred by the WGAW is Movie Magic Screenwriter (hereinafter "MMS", for brevity), developed by Write Brothers. Similar to Final Draft, MMS is loaded with features. It contains over 100 templates for screenplays, stage plays, and TV episodes. It has a built-in dictionary and thesaurus, supporting ten languages. If you have already started your screenplay using Microsoft Word or some other word processor, you can import it directly into MMS. You can export your screenplay in PDF format, if you would like to email it to someone without their having the ability to make unauthorized changes to it (such as replacing your name with theirs on the title page!). The program has automatic backup, revision tracking, production reports, script tagging, online collaboration with other writers, and the ability for you to add notes throughout your script.

MMS, perhaps more than any other screenplay application, is designed to be as simple to use as possible. Not only can you turn off all of the menu bars — so the application window looks like a blank page, with no distractions — but you can perform all operations using just two keys on your keyboard, Enter and Tab.

MMS selection by typing
Figure 6. MMS selection by typing

Outlining your story is the most efficient way to develop a story structure, prior to writing the scene descriptions and dialogue. MMS makes it possible to create outlines, nested up to 30 levels deep.

MMS outlining
Figure 7. MMS outlining

Using the NaviDoc Scenes panel, you can quickly locate and go to any scene in your screenplay, display any number of lines in each scene, and even sort the scenes by various criteria, without affecting the actual order of the manuscript. That last feature would be quite helpful for "trying out" a new scene order without making any commitment to it.

MMS NaviDoc Scenes
Figure 8. MMS NaviDoc Scenes

When you are ready to start your big screenplay project, there is no need to stock up on 3x5 index cards and pushpins, because MMS has a built-in index card system.

MMS index card system
Figure 9. MMS index card system

Using MMS, you can assign different computer voices to your characters, and hear your story as they read out the dialogue that you have written (assuming that you have computer speakers or a headset of some sort).

MMS SmartCheck
Figure 10. MMS SmartCheck

MMS normally costs the same as Final Draft, but as of this writing is available for about $210. Movie Magic Screenwriter runs on Windows 2000, XP, or Vista, and on OS X version 10.3.9 or higher. It requires less disk space and system memory than Final Draft. Free technical support is available via email or telephone. To take MMS for a test spin, you can download a fully-functional copy that will work for five days.

Third-Party Candidates

Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter are certainly not the only screenplay applications on the market. Others include Celtx, Dramatica Pro, DreamaScript, Hollywood Screenplay, Movie Outline, Page 2 Stage, ScriptBuddy, and Scriptware.

Earlier I examined two programs in detail, but if neither one of them works out for you, then be sure to try some of the alternatives. Every program has a different user interface, and you may find that one interface is far more intuitive than the others, or that a particular program has all of the features that you need, without the complexity that you don't need.

There's another saying in the movie industry, that "Hollywood is the world's largest open-air asylum." Fortunately, with the screenwriting tools now available, you don't have to go crazy writing your first screenplay.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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